The Dynamics of Cultural Systems

Sociological analyses of culture have expanded greatly in recent years (Crane, 1994). Our overview in this chapter is highly selective. We will begin with a brief section that is intended to help establish continuity with the sociobiological emphasis of the previous chapter. We will then focus in more detail on three distinct dimensions of culture—cognitive, behavioral, and moral. Following is a list of the topics to be covered, along with the names of the specific theorists whose contributions will be reviewed for each area:

  • Cultural learning and human survival—This brief section will provide an overview of anthropologist Paul Bohannan’s analysis of how culture builds on human beings’ innate ability to learn and enables them to survive, though culture may sometimes inhibit the search for more effective survival strategies.

  • Human agency and the morphogenetic process of cultural development—This section will review Margaret Archer’s perspective on how cultural ideas and beliefs reflect the efforts of human beings to achieve cognitive consistency in their cognitions and meaning systems.

  • Culture as civilized behavioral self-control—Our goal in this section will be to review the historical analysis provided by Norbert Elias to link the origins and diffusion of civilized manners with the collapse of feudalism and the growth of centralized state power.

  • Culture as an arena for cognitive and moral struggle—In this section we will highlight Jeffrey Alexander’s perspective on how cultural meanings can be analyzed in terms of binary oppositions between good and evil, or right and wrong. These crucial cultural distinctions are deeply connected to the social processes involved in defining ingroups and outgroups, and thus are related in a fundamental way to both individual and collective identity.


Emotional Expressiveness Symbolic Meaning Cultural Level Functional Interdependence Cultural Trap 
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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2008

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